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THE PASSING OF THE RANCHO
BY J. M. GUINN
The first real estate boom — that is, a rapid rise ip land values —
in Southern California was brought about by a disaster that destroyed
its leading industry certainly an anomolous condition in the history
of a country.
For nearly half a century the one great commercial industry of
the Southland had been cattle raising, first for their hides and tallow
for export, and later to supply beef to the miners in the gold fields.
To make it profitable, the cattle industry required the land devoted
to it to be held in large tracts called ranchos, consequently the settle-
ment and development of the country was slow and real estate booms
The first wild rush of miners to the gold fields stimulated the
cattle industry. The only source from whence the gold hunters could
obtain fresh meat was the ranchos of Southern California. The
rapid rise in cattle values forced wealth on the rancheros and they
spent it lavishly. The importation of cattle across the plains from
western states and the settlement of the valleys in the central and
northern part of the State being nearer the mines, brought a decline
in the prices of cattle on the southern ranchos. To compete with
the northern producers, the rancheros of the south had allowed their
ranges to become overstocked, hoping to make up by quantity for
the decrease in value.
The famine years of 1863 and 1864, when for two seasons not
enough rain fell to start the green feed, put an end to the industry.
A million animals, cattle and horses, starved to death. This calamity
forced a change in the industries of the Southland. The rancheros
had no money to restock their ranges nor to cultivate them. To add
to their misfortune, most of them were deeply in debt and cancerous
mortgages were eating away their possessions.
The only hope for the country lay in the subdivision of the
great ranchos and the distribution of the land among small land
owners who would cultivate the soil. The first great subdivision
was that of the Stearns' Ranchos — seven great ranchos located in
the San Gabriel and Santa Ana valleys.
Don Abel Stearns, the Rockefeller or Pierpont Morgan of the
old pueblo, in the flush days of '49 and the early SO's, when a cattle
range was more profitable than a gold mine, with that Yankee shrewd-
THE PASSING OF THE RANCHO 47
ness that characterized him in all his dealings, had turned his genius
to the acquisition of land. By loaning money on mortgages to im-
pecunious rancheros, by the purchase of equities in encumbered estates
and by foreclosures, he had possessed himself of immense land hold-
ings. When the famine years had passed and the bones of his hun-"
dred thousand cattle lay bleaching on the sun-scorched plains. Steams
found himself the owner of a principality in land ; greater than that
of an English lord ; but financially on the verge of bankruptcy. He
was the owner of 200,000 acres of land mortgaged for $50,000. The
ruling rates of interest then ranged from 15 to 24 per cent per annum.
Without income from his acres and indebtedness piling up, Stearns
found himself not only on the very verge of bankruptcy but just
ready to topple over into the vortex of insolvency. In 1864 all of
Stearns' landed possessions were advertised to be sold at a sheriff's
sale for delinquent taxes and the total amount of his taxes was
only about $4,000. The ruling prices of land in Southern California
after the famine years was 25 to 50 cents per acre.
The land known as the Stearns' ranchos comprised the following
grants : Los Coyotes, La Habra, San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana, Los
Bolsa y Paredas, La Bolsa Chica, and a part of the Los Alamitos.
Stearns, with the assistance of his old-time friend, Alfred Robinson,
succeeded in negotiating the sale of these ranchos and the holdings
he had in San Bernardino County to a syndicate of San Francisco
capitalists. The original members of the syndicate were Sam Bran-
nan, E. F. Northam and C. B. Polhemus. Stearns reserved an eighth
interest in the land. The price paid was one dollar and fifty cents
per acre. The partners in the deal incorporated under the title of the
Los Angeles and San Bernardino Land Company. Alfred Robinson,
the author of the famous book, "Life in California," was made trustee
and signed all transfers. «
These 200,000 acres were subdivided and in 1868 were put on
the market in tracts of 40 acres and up, on easy terms at prices
ranging from $2 to $10 per acre. They were extensively advertised.
The lure of cheap lands brought a rush of immigrants from
central and northern California and from the eastern states, and our
first boom was on, and it might be added, that booms have been on
again and off again and gone again many times since, but none of
them was such a success or did so much for the development of the
country as that first one. The price of the land was advanced from
time to time as the country was settled. When the land was all
sold, the members of that syndicate or their heirs cleaned up a
profit of $2,000,000.
The 200,000 acres that Stearns parted with in the financial gloom
of the 60's for $300,000 are worth today a hundred millions dollars.
The Laguna, one of the Stearns' ranchos, lying southeast of and
48 HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
adjoining Los Angeles City, was not included in the syndicate deaL
It was recently sold for eight million dollars.
Nearly twenty years before the subdivision of the Steams'
ranches and other great ranchos, and the distribution of the land
among small land holders, changed the character of the population
and the industries of Southern California. Henry Dalton, a pioneer
of the Mexican era and a large land holder, projected a scheme for
the distribution of some of his landed interests, which, had it been
carried out successfully, would have precipitated the subdivision of
the large ranchos and hastened their colonization.
Dalton in nearly a column advertisement in the Southern Cali-
fornian and an abbreviated one in the Los Angeles Star in 1855, the
only newspapers then published in Los Angeles County, thus outlines
"A Magnificent Real Estate Distribution by Henry Dalton.
Four hundred and thirty-four splendid prizes, consisting of splendid
modern-built private residences in the City of Los Angeles; very
valuable city and town lots eligibly situated on the principal thor-
oughfares. Magnificent vineyards and fruit orchards in the highest
state of cultivation, valuable town property in the city of Benton,
numerous farms on the Rancho Azusa, comprising the finest agri-
cultural lands in the lower country, offering the most attractive
inducements to those wishing to obtain future homes in this the love-
liest portion of California; and at no late date to form the most
valuable section of country on the coast of the Pacific, together with
an extensive lot of improved stock comprising in part valuable
horses of the best blood in the country, broken to the harness and
saddle; also horned cattle of improved breeds, etc.
"Mr. Henry Dalton, proprietor of a large amount of the most
valuable and productive tracts of land in the beautiful and fertile
valleys of the County of Los Angeles, and wishing to throw them
into market and under cultivation by the settlement thereon of an
agricultural community, has deemed it advisable to present to the
public the above magnificent distribution scheme amounting to
Eighty-four Thousand Dollars.
"No other enterprise in this country has ever presented the
attractive features offered by this scheme, either, in point of real
magnitude or intrinsic value. Unlike similar operations which have
heretofore combined a host of worthless articles of no earthly value
or utility to the possessor; with perhaps some half a dozen capital
prizes, this scheme comprizes none but the most valuable and desir-
able objects, the least of which is well worthy the attention of the
Dalton evidently wished to give the impression that his Mag-
nificent Distribution Scheme was not to be classed with the numerT
THE PASSING OF THE RANCHO 49
ous drawings, distributions, raffles and lotteries that were as plentiful
in his day as stock companies were in ours before the blue sky law
put them out of business.
In a parallel column with Dalton's ad. in the Californian is the
advertisement of H. M. Smith & Co.'s great $100,000 prize raffle.
The first prize was $10,000 in octagon-shaped $50 gold slugs of
Argonautic days. No prize in this raffle was worth less than fifty
dollars. Unfortunately for the investors the proprietors forgot to
mention the number of prizes, but that was not material. Everyone
was after the slugs.
In another column of the Californian, the California Art Union
was advertising its monthly drawings, where for the consideration
of $1.00 you could take a chance on a $5,000 gold ingot, silver-lined
trumpets, Persian shawls, magnificent paintings of the "Descent from
the Cross," "The Holy Family" and other pious pictures done in
oil by the young masters. But the prize of prizes was the largest
diamond in the United States done in paste by experts.
Sixty years ago lotteries were as thick as leaves in Valambrosa.
Maryland and Louisiana licensed them, and all the other States
tolerated them. Even the churches sometimes took a hand in draw-
ings that bordered close on to lotteries, and justified themselves with
the plea that the end sanctified the means. Even the Father of his
Country, it is said, took a chance in a lottery to raise money to
build a wagon road over the Blue Ridge. He did not win the
capital prize. Sixty years ago there was no censorship of the mails.
Everything that went into them went through them.
Dalton, after justifying his method of distribution, launches
forth in a eulogy on the southern country that for the tropical
exuberance of adjectives and richness of descriptive phrase would
turn our whole Million Club of real estate boosters green with
He says, "The well-known and justly-celebrated natural advan-
tages of this section of country with its beautiful scenery ; its unsur-
passed salubrity of climate, its unparalled fertility and ridhness of
soil, its extensive valleys and broad and limitless plains, its beautiful
streams and rich and varied scenery need no description to those
who have visited this garden spot of the Pacific; situated on the
shores of the illimitable expanse of this mighty waste of waters,
possessing one of the finest harbors upon the coast on the one hand
and the only feasible pass through the mountain barriers on the
other, through which the project of an interoceanic railroad between
the two oceans can be consumated, the future of this county is
beyond the power of imagination to conceive, and whether we con-
sider its present or its future, it presents infinitely superior induce-
ments to all portions of the State."
so HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
"The catalogue," says Dalton, "will embrace a large number
of beautiful and convenient modern built dwelling houses, city
and town lots eligibly situated in the city of Los Angeles ; magni-
ficent vineyards and fruit orchards unsurpassed in point of thrift
aiid productiveness ; very valuable town lots in the town of Benton,
together with splendid farming lands adjacent thereto and comprising
a portion of the splendid Rancho of Azusa, one of the finest tracts
in the lower country, and on the direct line between vSan Pedro and
San Gorgonio, the procpective location of the Great Pacific Railroad.
"For the purpose of disposing of these valuable and highly at-
tractive objects, together with a choice selection of personal prop-
erty, comprising horses, cattle and other live stock, a 'distribution
scheme' has been formed on the plan of similar associations in other
portions of the world, thereby offering to all an opportimity of
securing at a triffling cost a desirable home for themselves and
families where the remainder of their days may be passed in the
quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the domestic hearth surrounded
by the comforts and conveniences that the richest soil and most
salubrious and healthy climate can afford."
"The whole is divided in shares placed by general desire at
the low rate of ONE DOLLAR EACH, giving to the holder an
interest, by purchase, in the entire enterprise and constituting a
membership with all the privileges annexed thereto, and the right
to decide on the mode of distribution. The sale will be completed
by the disposal of all the shares or by the first Monday in May, 1855,
and the property will await the order of the shareholders, through
the fair and impartial decision of a committee dhosen by themselves.
"Among other highly attractive and valuable features offered
in this enterprize are one of the most magnificent private dwellings
in the southern country, now occupied by the Hon. Judge Olvera,
fronting eighty-six feet on the Main Plaza, with wings extending
back ninety-five feet, possessing an open court within, a beautiful
corridor along the entire front, with numerous apartments elegantly
finished, and combining every convenience pertaining to a first-class
residence. Value $11,000.*
Dalton's "one of the most magnificent private dwellings in
Southern California," is still standing and known as the Olvera
house. It is located on the northeast corner of Marchessault and
Olvera Street, fronting on the Plaza. It is the last of the Plaza
♦Note. — Thia historic house, with an unwritten history, was built about
eighty years ago by Don Tlburclo Tapala. For many years It was the residence
of Don Agustin Olvera. Olvera was a prominent citizen in pueblo days, and
active In pueblo jxolltics. He was deputado at the treaty of Cahuenga and wels
one of the signers of the arUcles of capitulation between Col. J. C. Fremont
and General Andres Pico. He was the first county Judge In 1850, when the
county was organized, and president of the Court of Session.
THE PASSING OF THE RANCHO 51
fronts that were once the homes of the pueblo aristocracy and almost
the last relic of the adobe age of our city.
After it ceased to be the palatial home Dalton describes it, in
the later 50*s and early 60's, when Satan and his imps had their
innings on the Plaza, it became a saloon and gambling liell. Nigger
Alley, the Plaza's chief tributary from the south was known as the
wickedest street on earth. After several vigilence committees had
regulated the morals of the Plaza by hemp and exile, the old house
became the habitation of the "heathen Chinee." When dilapidation
and decay had reduced it until it was unfit for even Mongolians
to inhabit, it was converted into a hay barn and coal yard. The
spacious hall where once the beauty and the chivalry of the pueblo
whirled through the dance is now occupied by a Mexican restaurant
where, if you are indifferent to your surroundings, you can appease
your hunger at any price from cinco centavos (5 cents) to cuarta
reales (50 cents) on enchiladas (meal and meat cakes) gallina,
(chicken), huertos (eggs), fritos empanados (meat cakes), tamales,
tortillas and other dainties of olden times.
Dalton's second prize was an extensive and hig'hly productive
vineyard within fiteen minutes walk of the public square or plaza.
The next was "one very fine modern built dwelling house, con-
taining nine rooms, with necessary out buildings, situated on the
most valuable ground in the city, directly opposite the Court House
lot fronting 63 feet on Spring Street and running back 155 feet.
The Court House then was on the corner of Spring and
Franklin or Jail Streets, where the Phillips block lately stood.
Of the city and town lots rising rapidly in value there were
two hundred and forty elegant ones in the city of Benton. It is
to be regreted that Dalton did not give the price of lots in this
prospective metropolis of the San Gabriel Valley, Benton City. It is
to be regreted, too, that he did not give the price per acre of the
"twenty-four superb forty-acre farms on the Rancho of Azusa" ad-
joining this metropolis and containing some of the richest and most
fertile lands in the world.
As a guarantee of the reality, fairness and security of this
magnificent real estate distribution scheme, Dalton referred to about
all the cattle kings and merchant princes of Los Angeles. His ad-
vertisement ran from January to April in the newspapers. About
three weeks before the drawing was to be held, it disappeared from
their columns without explanation, apology or editorial comment.
The only inference we can draw is that the 84,000 chances in the
magnificent real estate distribution scheme were not taken.
52 HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
The times then were not auspicious for real estate distributions.
The people of Southern California had not been educated up to the
necessity or desirability of small farms. What could a man with
forty acres do against his neighbor with 40,000? Then the majority
of those who took chances in distributions, drawings, raffles and
lotteries were not yearning for land. They wanted quick returns
on their investments. Smith & Co.'s $10,000 golden slugs had far
greater attraction for this class than Dalton's $11,000 palatial resi-
dence. Even Duncan's art union pious pictures appealed more pow-
erfully to the paisanos than Dalton superb 40-acre farms with their
illimitable fertility of soil. A farm implied work and work was
what every lottery patron was trying to avoid.
A chance in the Monte farmer's distribution scheme (ad in the
Calif ornian) in which the chief prize was an elegant $500 family
carriage that had crossed the plains behind an ox team had the
call in a lottery drawing over whole blocks of Dalton's eligible city
lots. Land was the cheapest and most undesirable commodity of-
Dalton was a shrewd business man. He could foresee the doom
of the cattle kings and the division of their domains. To forestall
his own fate, for he was the owner of myriads of acres, he inaug-
urated this first subdivision scheme. That it was a failure was
due to the times and customs. The Rancho Azusa remained intact.
Benton became a phantom city, its location uncertain. No map of it
was ever recorded. No house was ever built within its limits. No
inhabitants ever lived in it.
The Ranhco Azusa is ghost-haunted by spectre cities. There
are at least three of these phantoms on it — Benton City, the city of
Gladstone, and Chicago Park. The last two of these were founded
in the great real estate boom of 1887. The history of Gladstone has
been well told by our fellow member, Mr. C. C. Baker, in Vol. IX,
publications of the Historical Society. Chicago Park, a city of
2289 lots, was located in the wash of the San Gabriel River. That
river of torrents, once named the River of Earthquakes, arose in
its wrath and converted Chicago Park into a maratime city by
washing its soil and silt into the San Pedro Harbor, forty miles
away from its former location.
Its eccentric founder fixed the value of its lots at a uniform
price of $13 each. Whether or not the choosing of this ill-omened
number 13 was a defy to Fate, Fate took the challenge and mis-
fortune overtook the town. Five years later the county assessor
was assessing these lots in bunches of five at an aggregate value
of $1.00 for the bunch.
Azusa of the phantom cities was not the only rancho that Dalton
owned. He had interests in three others. The aggregate of his
THE PASSING OF THE RANCHO 53
landed interests amounted to over 70,000 acres. As a cattle king
he ranked well up among the feudal royalty. His kingdom was
subdivided and distributed among many owners, but not by himself.
Litigation and the "famine years" that killed the cattle industry
sealed his doom. His magnificent real estate distribution scheme
involved him in a lawsuit for the trifling value of one share. It was
carried through the courts and fought with bitterness for years.
My story is a record of a phase of our civilization passed and
gone forever. The cattle kings — the vaqueros, their vassals — the
ranches, their kingdoms — and the lavishness with which they spent
their wealth, are but the dimly remembered tradition of an age of
feudal splendor in tinsel settings. It was a dream of affluence and
an awakening to poverty — a flitting glamor of riches darkened by
the shadows of want. No heir of a cattle king inherits the kingdom
of his progenitors. The passing of the Rancho ended the line of